Several interlocal road projects in The Woodlands that have spent years in the planning stages will see work begin this year.
In The Woodlands area, many projects underway or in the planning process as of early 2022 are at the nexus of several governing bodies, requiring them to work together and coordinate efforts. Complicating matters in 2022 is the pending change of Harris County precinct boundaries in the southern portion of The Woodlands as well as disagreements between governing entities as to what is needed at other key intersections.
Harris County precincts 3 and 4 will see their boundaries flip, and the portion of Harris County in The Woodlands—Creekside Park—will change from Precinct 4 to Precinct 3, complete with a different commissioner and staff.
At the same time, diverging opinions have emerged over how to handle needs at the intersection of Research Forest Drive and Grogans Mill Road, and a project that has spent four years in planning is expecting construction to start east of I-45 on David Memorial Drive. Alongside these projects, The Woodlands Transit is expanding its commuter bus service to get more vehicles off the road.
Collaboration between entities occurs frequently in The Woodlands area, but changing boundaries and evolving needs create challenges for long-term planning, officials said
“Roads don’t end at county lines and city lines,” said Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston, which advocates for infrastructure funding. “The ability to work together is critical.”
Major mobility needs
Nationally, an emphasis on transportation infrastructure in 2022 is reflected in President Joe Biden’s signing into law a $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Nov. 6. Texas is expected to get about $35 billion of that funding, while existing federal aid programs will receive $265.4 billion over five years, according to Chandra Bhat at The University of Texas.
Craig Raborn, transportation director of metropolitan planning organization Houston-Galveston Area Council, said Houston-area entities will have 11 new grant programs to apply for. However, Raborn cautioned that other federal funding and regulatory hurdles needed to be cleared before the H-GAC or other planning organizations can begin funding allocation. Harris and Montgomery counties are within the H-GAC service area and handle some road needs within The Woodlands, but as of January it was not known whether the region would receive funding.
On top of uncertainty regarding future federal funding availability, Montgomery County has nearly completed projects from its last $280 million mobility bond, approved by voters in 2015. Early 2022 marks the expected completion of the last Montgomery County Precinct 3 project, a $3.57 million widening of Kuykendahl Road between Research Forest and Lake Woodlands drives.
Although a new major thoroughfare plan was approved by county commissioners in 2021, discussion of plans for a new bond had not started as of early 2022.
However, Precinct 2 completed a mobility study in 2021, removing several projects that residents opposed, including the possibility of a Woodlands Parkway extension. Precinct 2 only touches The Woodlands at the north and western borders, but collaboration is needed between precincts at highly traveled points around those boundaries, officials have said.
For example, one area where collaboration would be needed for a project is at the heavily trafficked intersection of Research Forest Drive and Grogans Mill Road. Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack stated in mid-December there are no plans for overpass or underpass at the intersection.
On the west side of The Woodlands, although a long-discussed Woodlands Parkway extension was removed from the county’s thoroughfare plan, officials have said a project underway to extend Woodtrace Boulevard from Hwy. 249 to FM 2978—about a quarter-mile south of the Woodlands Parkway—amounts to the same thing.
“The Woodlands Parkway extension, now rebranded Woodtrace Extension, will drive traffic into the western parts of The Woodlands,” Gordy Bunch, chair of The Woodlands Township board of directors, said in an email.
Michael Rusk, transportation vice president with LJA Engineering—which is overseeing the Woodtrace Boulevard project being funded by Westwood Magnolia Parkway Improvement District, Montgomery County Precinct 2 and several developers—said the extension will be a two-lane road with right of way for up to four lanes as funding allows. The first phase was completed in 2021, and the remaining phases will go out to bid this year, he said.
Officials are also grappling with the challenge of a forthcoming precinct boundary change in Harris County, where the portion located in The Woodlands will change from Precinct 4 to Precinct 3 in 2022. According to Precinct 4 officials, litigation on the matter is before the Texas Supreme Court, but the new precinct lines are scheduled to take effect in late March.
Victoria Bryant, assistant director of the Precinct 4 infrastructure division, said the two precincts are working together to ensure a smooth transition pending the final outcome of redistricting litigation.
“[Precinct 3] Commissioner Tom Ramsey and [Precinct 4] Commissioner R. Jack Cagle are often heard referring to their areas of service as being ‘Precinct 7’ to emphasize that all of the 2.3 million people that have been transmigrated from either Precinct 3 to 4 or from 4 to 3 will be served,” Bryant said.
In The Woodlands area, Harris County projects affecting Gosling Road are underway, including an $8.2 million joint project with Montgomery County Precinct 4 to widen the road and build a bridge over Spring Creek. Additional widening will take place between West Rayford Road and Creekside Forest Drive.
Precinct 4 officials have stated current projects will be completed by the teams currently working on them.
The 3-2 vote to change the precinct boundaries was split along party lines Oct. 28, with Cagle and Ramsey opposing the measure and joining a lawsuit against the county alleging the new map violates voters’ rights. Transportation experts say these disagreements can complicate collaborative efforts.
“There’s a lot of tension because of [redistricting],” French said. “When there’s tension bubbling, it’s difficult to have those partnership conversations.”
Collaborations can also be seen outside The Woodlands in the expansion of David Memorial Drive in Shenandoah to Hwy. 242. An $8 million project funded by the cities of Conroe and Shenandoah as well as Montgomery County, it has been in discussion for more than four years, said John Bleyl, Bleyl Engineering president and CEO.
The project was slated to begin construction in early 2022, and Bleyl said as of Jan. 4 the project is expected to be funded and ready for bids in March or April with a June construction date.
Bunch said while this and other projects may relieve congestion, traffic volumes will likely rise in the coming years.
“Pandemic changes to driving patterns [are] masking the inevitable gridlock our area will face when population growth, high-density projects get constructed and workers eventually return back to their offices,” he said.
Transit offers solutions
While plans to widen area roads continue, experts say other approaches are also needed to cope with a growing population and changes in commuting habits.
“Certainly now with remote work, people have more options as to where they can live; you’re not beholden to a particular place or region,” French said. “All of that has really shaped and changed a lot of the conversations around transportation.”
Commuting patterns are also subject to changes in where businesses are headquartered. In The Woodlands, a pilot service for a new The Woodlands Transit park and ride bus service to the Energy Corridor off I-10 launched Jan. 4. With 80% funding from an H-GAC grant, the township’s annual cost is about $70,000.
Ruthanne Haut, deputy director of community services in The Woodlands, said programs such as the park and ride help to take cars off the road and ease congestion without road construction. However, it takes about three years to establish riders on a new service and gauge its success, she said.Haut said her department operates as a concierge service to residents to answer questions about the many overlapping entities they must deal with regarding transportation needs and services.
“It’s complicated up here, so we have folks on the staff that help our residents navigate the complexities of the government structure,” she said.
Andrew Christman, Anna Lotz and Jishnu Nair contributed to this report.
Multiple agencies mull mobility needs in The Woodlands in 2022
Road widening work is underway in The Woodlands area, including on FM 2978, where near Mansions Way a connection with Woodtrace Boulevard is also planned by a Westwood Magnolia Parkway Improvement District.